Updated November 2017
As a brand spanking new category for OutdoorGearLab, road bike shoes are making their grand entrance. We've included a slew of popular brands in the road biking world, awarding the Sidi Wire Vent Carbon our coveted Editors' Choice. We've also included contenders that will satisfy the needs of our wallet-friendly crowd, like the Fi'zi:k R5B Uomo Boa, as well as a Top Pick for Lightweight Adventures, the Shimano S-Phyre RC9.
Best Overall Model
Sidi Wire Vent Carbon
: 22.1 oz | Upper material:
: Microfibre Techpro
Superior power transfer
Stiffness makes it hard to put on/take off
Our Editors' Choice Award goes to the sleek Sidi Wire Vent Carbon
. This premium model stands out from the rest of the crowd, surprising no one that it remains a top choice in the pro peloton. It's not the lightest shoe out there, but it brings crazy performance across our measures. It offers superior support with its tough Lorica Vernice Microfiber upper and micro-adjustable Tecno 3 buckles. It delivers exceptional power transfer through that same firm upper and optimal adjustment, especially through its stabilizing Heel Retention System and of course through its full carbon outsole. It has excellent comfort with a moderate padding and a uniform, snug fit that minimizes hotspots. And what it retains in weight is paid out in durability to make your dollars go farther.
Read review: Sidi Wire Vent Carbon
Best Bang for the Buck
Fi'zi:k R5B Uomo Boa
: 22 oz | Upper material:
The Fi'zi:k R5B Uomo Boa
is a super comfortable, stylish, affordable workhorse of a shoe that easily won our wallet-friendly award. We had a hard time not choosing these as our Editors' Choice, but in the end, they just don't have that same top end performance as some of the pro shoes. That being said, they'll be everything many riders want in a road bike shoe and probably more. Their smooth sock liner and flexible Microtex upper work with the narrow heel collar, sculpted footbed, and padding to create a natural, comfortable fit that helps the miles pass by unnoticed. Their carbon-reinforced nylon sole provides a great degree of stiffness and power transfer without breaking the bank. They are also super easy to fasten, using a simple toe strap and a bi-directional IP1 Boa dial with a quick release that allows quick exit, on-the-fly adjustment, and micro-adjustment.
Read review: Fi'zi:k R5B Uomo Boa
Top Pick for Lightweight
Shimano S-Phyre RC9
: 19 oz | Upper material:
: Synthetic leather
Fastening can be a hassle
The Shimano S-Phyre RC9
wins our Top Pick Award, with top scores in both comfort and weight, and nearly earning a high score in power transfer. They are a rough equal to the Editors' Choice, but they are about 20% less costly for comparable performance at the pro level, making a premium pro shoe more accessible to the average rider. They use a super light carbon sole and robust, but thin Teijan Avail synthetic microfiber upper to reduce their weight to just 19 ounces in a men's 45. This makes them the second lightest shoe in the lineup, but arguably the lightest, given that the other shoes are all 44s, and the next lightest shoe is just 2/10 of an ounce lighter. Not only are they light, but they are incredibly comfortable. Their thin upper hugs the foot using supple padding and a unique burrito tongue that folds over the foot to create a more uniform fit that reduces hot spots. All in, we think riders will be stoked about getting their feet in a pair of these, and we couldn't agree more.
Read full review: Shimano S-Phyre RC9
Analysis and Test Results
After riding hundreds of miles in all sorts of conditions while researching material and performance we were able to evaluate our cohort on five all-important measures: comfort, weight, power transfer, adjustability, and durability. Each of the five metrics was assigned an appropriate weight, and after careful analysis of our research, performance notes, and experience, all road bike shoes were scored across the metrics, and we arrived at a total score out of 100. Those results are presented in the table above.
When we discuss comfort in cycling, we fully recognize that you're a cyclist because comfort isn't your thing - you spend your time fighting traffic and hammering in the blazing sun and freezing cold because you need the edge. That said, no one begrudges a comfy shoe. We considered a few different aspects when we compared comfort. We were looking for something that fit the form of the foot (with caveats and considerations given to aggressiveness of lasting curve), while having a modest amount of cushion in the right spots, a snug, hugging heel cup, and a negotiable toe box. We recognize that your weird feet aren't like the average foot, so we kept you in mind too - all bike kicks need to be versatile enough to work for both Average Joe and Weird Mike.
One of the most successful shoes in this category was the Best Buy winner, the Fi'zi:K R5B Uomo Boa
. That's not surprising given that the company is mostly known for designing saddles meant to make sitting on a small piece of plastic and metal for hours at a time a reasonable activity. Perhaps their most welcoming feature is the soft padding that lines the heel and collar. Not only that, but the smooth elastane lining is rivaled only by the Giro Republic's micro-suede heel counter
, which also covered a healthy amount of padding. Those things were hard to put on because we just wanted to keep rubbing them. Both shoes feel pretty great, but the Fi'zi:ks
are better suited to hardcore long distance riding while the Republics
do better with commuting, spin, and leisurely touring - all activities that require more walking.
On the right, the Shimano and Fi'zi:k both hug the ankle and cup the heel with padding and create a firm seal while the less comfortable Lake and Pearl Izumi on the left have less padded, wide toplines that don't secure the foot.
The other quality that needs to be considered is the shape of the shoe. Narrow toplines and snug collars help keep the feet stable and prevent heel lift. Both the Fi'zi:k
and Top Pick winner, Shimano S-Phyre
, do fantastic jobs with that. One thing that sets them apart is their closure. Fi'zi:k
uses a standard closure with the two halves of the upper coming together over the tongue to be tightened. Shimano use a burrito tongue and folds the upper over the foot and then uses a strap to secure the fold. While the Fi'zi:ks
have superior padding and liner, the Shimanos
have a preferred closure.
The Lakes' tough full grain leather upper made them ideal for cool weather and thick socks, but a more comfortable shoe would be better for regular cycling socks and warm conditions.
Cycling is where weight weenies make their home. There is an incredible premium on lightweight materials in this sport. Luckily for us, the measure is straightforward to measure - just break out the digital food scale, plop the naked shoe on, record, check a second time, move to the next shoe. As for what makes the shoe light, that's something that requires a little more research and prodding. Typically, the lightest road bike shoes had a scaled down carbon sole, sometimes with a good deal of venting. They also tended to have thin uppers made of some synthetic fiber and had limited padding. It's just like any movie or cartoon where the ship can only jettison so much flotsam before it loses its steering and propulsion and the sinking starts. There are certainly tradeoffs for having such light shoes, and usually, that comes in the form of comfort, sturdiness, and longevity.
Yet, there are exceptions to the tradeoff rule, and that is embodied by the Shimano S-Phyres
, coming in at just 19 ounces in a pair of men's 45. They use a thin carbon sole and a thin Teijin Avail microfiber synthetic leather upper to achieve incredible lightness without seriously reducing longevity or sturdiness. These are arguably the lightest shoes in the lineup. However, they are a size larger than the rest of the field, so they end up being two-tenths of an ounce heavier than their nearest rival.
The 19-ounce pair of S-Phyres roughly equate to two hampsters hitching a ride with this rider.
That rival is the Giro Empire ACC, coming in at 18.8 ounces in a pair of men's 44
. To achieve that weight, it uses a very thin Evofiber microfiber upper, an Easton EC90 ACC carbon composite sole, and noticeably reduces the stack height to 6.5mm, helping to cut weight. A surprisingly competitive model in this race is the Pearl Izumi Race Road IV, coming in at 20.5 ounces in men's 44
. The lightest shoes are typically much more expensive mid-level and premium shoes like the two models mentioned above. However, the Pearl Izumis
are very much entry level and the most affordable in our lineup.
Two of the lightest shoes in the lineup were the Giro Empire ACC and the Pearl Izumi Road.
One of the first things a seasoned rider notices when trying on a new pair of kicks is the power transfer. It's especially pronounced moving from a nylon or composite sole to a carbon sole, but the design of the upper also plays a major role. Most carbon soles will transfer power extremely well, but if the foot is kicking around and shifting in a poorly fitting upper that can't be locked down properly, power will be wasted. For this, we looked at the general stiffness of the upper combined with the way it conformed to the foot.
Additionally, we looked at the heel cup and collar to see how much slippage happened at the heel. It's challenging to design a shoe that will completely eliminate heel slippage when you're standing, cranking on the pedals, maybe even leaning a little forward, and lifting up on your upstroke, but a fair number of shoes did a good job of mitigating the slip, and that factored into their rating.
The top scoring kick here was the Sidi Wire Vent Carbon
. What they brought to the table was a combination of great fit, great design, and excellent materials. Their shoe was well shaped to the foot, so it allowed it to work with the foot instead of allowing poor weight distribution, extra space, and excess material to interfere with hammering. The design ensured that the forefoot platform took the brunt of the force and that the closure system, especially the Heel Retention System, did not sap wattage. And the thick carbon sole and stiff Techpro microfiber upper transferred energy directly into the pedals.
Power transfer isn't just about carbon soles. Sidi uses an adjustable Heel Retention System to secure the heel and mitigate energy loss due to heel slippage.
Runner-up was Shimano
, which also has a fantastic carbon sole and a well-designed upper that secures the foot to the sole without leaving excess room. The difference is that they don't secure the heel as well, though they can tighten down and they use a unique cat-tongue heel liner, which helps the shoe stick to the heel. The Fi'zi:ks
also have a very similar design to the Shimanos
, except their sole is nylon with carbon reinforcement, so it flexes a bit compared to the other two. The difference is that their narrower topline and deeper heel cup allows them to grab the heel better and prevent slippage than the Shimanos
The three award winners all have excellent power transfer using some combination of full or composite carbon sole, secure fastening, and tight necks and heel cups.
We should also mention the Mavic Cosmic Ultimate II, whose carbon fiber frame makes an extremely stiff shoe
that transfers power like crazy - if you so much as lift your toe, your pedal's going to move. That said, the reason they don't do as well as their rivals is because they also have a full, loose collar, which allows the heel to slip, sapping power away from propulsion.
This year's line up.
Road bike shoes use all sorts of fastening systems: straps, laces, ratchets, buckles, dials, secured cabling, unsecured cabling, and every combination among them. Boa dials and their competing proprietary cousins are the newest fastening systems to spread across the industry. They're pretty fantastic, but even they have a great deal of variation: unidirectional, bi-directional, pop to release, no release, large and grippy, small and sleek, low power, high power, and lots more. We particularly look at the ability to micro-adjust the shoes with the fastening system and the ability to tighten on-the-fly, so riders are able to reach down and make a quick tweak at a traffic light, or, if they're good enough, while in the middle of a group ride without causing carnage.
We don't just look at the fastening system though. We also look at the design of the shoe to make sure that the fasteners can do their job. If the fasteners are top-notch, but the shoe is made of a material that doesn't flex enough to tighten, then what good is a fancy fastener? If the material and fasteners are fine, but the fastener is placed in a ridiculous place where it's tightening down a part of the shoe that doesn't need tightening, that's also a problem.
The top honor here goes to the Sidi Wire Vent Carbon
. They use two Sidi Tecno 3 Push buckles to fasten the upper. They allow for some serious micro-adjusting and quick release. The design of the upper also allows the shoe to adjust to the foot when the fasteners are manipulated. This becomes clear when comparing to the extremely stiff Mavics
, whose upper is almost incapable of being fastened beyond the general mold of the shoe. The Sidis
have the perfect mix of stiffness and flex in the upper to both transfer power and adjust to the foot.
Road shoes come with all sorts of fastening options: Boa dials, Velcro straps, buckles, ratchets, laces, and lots of unpictured options.
One major caveat here is that they aren't the easiest to adjust on-the-fly, but it's still doable. As much as we might love the Tecno 3 buckles for being so mechanistic, they do require two hands to incrementally loosen, and it makes us wish Sidi would look into partnering with Boa or find some other solution. Shimano and Fi'zi:k came in just behind them on the chart. Both use IP1 Boa dials with bi-directional adjustment and a pop-out quick release, but Fi'zi:k
only uses one dial, opting for a simple Velcro sailcloth toe strap instead of a second dial. Both shoes are extremely easy to micro-adjust and adjust on-the-fly, though it can be annoying to reach down mid-stroke to try to get a quick turn tighter only to accidentally pop the quick release.
The reason Shimano
ended up next to Fi'zi:k
instead of ahead of it, given its better toe fastener, is that the top dial is attached to the top strap and the cable anchor is attached to the side of the shoe. That means when the top strap is open or loose, and you try to tighten it with the dial, the dial twists the top strap unless you hold the strap down. The dial and strap are the inverse of the Tecno 3 Buckle on the Sidis
where the buckle is attached to the side of the upper and the cable anchor is attached to the strap; when you twist the buckle, nothing moves other than the cable.
Sidi has a stiffer upper than the Shimanos, which reduces adjustability to some degree, but they can be adjusted a greater degree, particularly given their heel retention system, as seen on the right side.
One of the primary advantages Sidi has over its biggest competitor in this review, Shimano
, is its Heel Retention System. The heel is already a bit of a weak point for the Shimanos
, and Sidi
exploits that by fortifying its heel with an adjustable device meant to improve fit and power transfer. It is a substantial advantage that the Italian shoes have over both Shimano
There's nothing more frustrating than dropping a few hundred dollars on gear only to have it break down before the year's out. Luckily, most road bike shoes will last at least a few years before showing any wear. We did a good deal of research, looked at materials and design to consider vulnerabilities, monitored wear and degradation over the 150 or so miles we put in for each shoe and did a lot of checking customer reviews and complaints to see what was wearing down and how frequently.
Some of the most significant indicators were replaceable parts, how many pieces were in the upper, and toughness and thickness of the upper material. Understandably, a shoe that uses a thick upper material with limited seams and heavy glue and threading will do better than a thin upper with light threading and lots of seams. A shoe that uses plastic or nylon in its sole instead of carbon will likewise see performance degeneration well before the carbon sole.
The Sidi Wire Vents
had the most durable features and topped this measure. They use a tough Techpro microfiber with heavy stitching that not only resists scuffing and tearing reasonably well but will also do a better job of holding its shape and resisting the elements than some of the other shoes. Its thick, full carbon sole will also take more abuse than some of the thinner soles and certainly some of the composite materials like plastic and nylon. What we're super stoked about is replaceable toe pad (which is also a sliding vent cover). The toe and heel are the two parts of the shoe that take damage every single time you stop (unless you're one of those monsters who insists on track standing at every light). The Sidis
are the only shoe in our lineup to have a replaceable toe pad.
Superior designs often improve durability. Sidi has included more replaceable parts like toe pads in its Wire Vent Carbon (right), which vastly prolongs its life over its 5 year old cousin, the Ergo 4 (left).
Coming up behind them are the Lake CX237s, which we affectionately call workhorses
. They use full grain leather, widely considered to be the most durable form of leather, for their upper. Like the Shimano S-Phyre
, they use a single piece to cut down on seams and vulnerabilities, whereas the Sidis
use a few pieces for its upper. But like the Sidis
, the Lakes'
strength is aided by their heavy duty stitching. They also have a thick carbon fiber sole comparable to the Italian shoes, but they leave their sole vulnerable to wear by only having a replaceable heel pad, leaving the toe to slowly wear down over time until to begins to damage the sole and upper.
The Lake CX237s are made for the abuses of training.
Once again, the Mavics
deserve mention here. One would think that such a carbon-intense shoe would be the most durable shoe. That's a reasonable consideration. They have a stiff carbon framed upper, their Energy Frame, atop a light mesh material. Below that is their Energy Full Carbon SLR Outsole. That's great, but the weakness is that neither heel pad nor toe pad are replaceable and they're both reasonably piddly. To top it off, and this is the real concern, their vents in the outsole are enormous, running along most of the middle of the foot and another at the toe. They are large enough that they could potentially allow stones, rocks, and sticks to poke through and do damage. The Shimanos
also have large vents, but not nearly as large as the Mavics
and only at the toe and heel. Both the Sidis
have vents, but they are less than the size of a fingernail.
Top kicks go head to head on a category 4 climb ranging up to 12% in Cabrillo State Park.
We have logged more than 150 miles in each of our test models, which has given us a base for evaluating road bike shoes. After this extensive research, we have found some favorites, but this is still fairly subjective. Keep in mind that everyone's feet are different. If our favorite doesn't fit your foot, you may want to explore some of the other models that we tested to find the proper footwear. All in all, each model that we tested is worthy and we are sure there is something for everyone in our test field.
It's not all about the bike.